FrogmanJohn Spence

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A U.S. Navy diver, Spence was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (which later became the Central Intelligence Agency), and much of what he and his fellow team members did was considered Secret until the late 1980s. He joined the Navy in 1936 and trained as a “hard hat” diver. After Pearl Harbor, he wanted to be a gunner, but with his diving experience, the Navy had other plans for him: he was the first enlisted man to be assigned to a special group being created by Major Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan for the OSS. The team would be trained to use Scuba equipment for stealthy underwater combat operations, such as destroying underwater minefields blocking troops’ beach landings. At one point, Spence tested a special green wet suit. “Someone saw me surfacing,” Spence said years later, “and yelled out, ‘Hey, frogman!’ The name stuck for all of us.” But Spence was the first Navy “Frogman”. Gen. Donovan’s combat dive team was the forerunner of the Navy SEALs, or Sea, Air, and Land Teams. One device Spence tested for the team: a Scuba unit that recycled the air, so it wouldn’t produce bubbles. “The only sound was my own breathing,” Spence said. “It made me feel kind of like Buck Rogers. Its classification was … on a par with the atomic program.” The device, invented by Chris Lambertsen, is still used by SEALs today.

Spence was sent to Florida to train other newly recruited combat swimmers how to use the rebreathing device, including Draper Kaufman, who was just assigned to lead the new Navy Underwater Demolition Team. Kaufman is regarded as the “Father of the Navy SEALs.” Spence and sailors like him “fought for our country with nothing more than a Ka-Bar knife, a pack of explosives, and a diving rig,” says Rick Kaiser, executive director of the Navy SEAL Museum in Florida. “In today’s age of drone strikes and worldwide instant communications, it’s hard to imagine going to war depending on nothing but your training, your cause and your teammates.” Spence retired from the Navy in 1961 — the year before the SEALs were created. Once Spence’s role was declassified, the Navy awarded him a Trident, the insignia worn by SEALs. Spence died October 29 in Bend, Ore. He was 95.

From This is True for 3 November 2013